For Texas independent, 'enthusiasm is contagious'

Mobile tool selling has always attracted self-motivated individuals. And within the highly diverse mobile distributor community, one can argue that the independent distributors are the most entrepreneurial. Bob Flynn, who operates Lone Star Tools in Austin, Texas, offers a prime example of a self-made independent business owner. He has carved his niche as an independent distributor in the highly competitive Austin market.

Flynn’s career evolved from an early interest in tools and gadgets, a passion for communicating with others who share his interests and an entrepreneurial streak that formed along the way.

Now 58 years old, Flynn has the enthusiasm of a man in his twenties as he visits his stops, chats with customers, shares ideas about tools and any number of subjects that are on his mind on a given day. He takes a personal interest in his customers and he isn’t shy about sharing his opinions with them on any number of subjects.

“Enthusiasm is contagious,” he says with an air of confidence.

Having brought an extensive business background when he became a mobile distributor in 2006, Flynn was a fast success. But his business today looks very different from when he started out driving for a national flag. He has continuously sought new and better ways to serve customers, a quest that has led to his becoming an independent carrying a multi-faceted product line that extends well beyond automotive tools.

But in a sense, the tool business has returned him to his roots. The son of a truck driver in Flushing, NY, his first job as a teenager was selling auto parts at a dealership. He developed an interest in tools and gadgets and eventually became fascinated by computers. He earned an undergraduate degree in computer technology at Queensboro Community College in Queens, NY with plans to work in the computer industry.

After holding different jobs in the computer business, Flynn eventually gravitated to sales, in which he excelled. “Sales is really solving problems,” he says. “I like helping people solve problems.” He was successful selling computers for nearly three decades. But he never rested on his laurels, nor did he lose his interest in mechanical tools. During his earlier years selling computers, he moonlighted as a home improvement service contractor, using skills he taught himself. “I have always been around tools,” he says.

Everything was going well for Flynn until 1993, when he got laid off eight months after taking a computer job in Austin. Never one to sit still, he wanted to try something different.

Flynn decided to turn a childhood hobby baking bagels into a business. With the help of his wife, Mary, Flynn built a successful bagel bakery in Austin. The business grew to include 15 employees, but despite the growth, the Flynns were not personally satisfied. The business was highly time-consuming, and they did not like managing employees. They sold the bakery after three years.

Between 1996 and 2006, Flynn held several jobs, but he didn’t find anything he was passionate about. He liked the idea of being his own boss, he liked tools, he wanted a business that didn’t require employees, he wanted to work with products that didn’t spoil, and he liked sales. In 2006, after evaluating different business opportunities, he decided to try his hand at mobile tool sales.

Flynn hooked up with a national flag. He financed his truck purchase (a new 18-footer) and his starting inventory with a $125,000 home equity loan.

His sales experience, combined with his tool knowledge, got him off to a fast start as a mobile distributor. He loved driving to shops and chatting with people.

He made it a point to honor warranties that had not been honored since the previous distributor left the business a few years earlier. This earned him a lot of customer support. “They need me to help them solve their problems,” he says.

He was profitable in his third month.

“If I believe in something, I can sell it. If I don’t believe in something, I can’t give it away,” he says. “I always try to sell a guy what he wants over what he needs. What he wants he’s happy to pay for.”

But he quickly learned the biggest downside of the business: collections. “It took a long time for me to come to terms with it as part of the business,” he says. After getting burned by a few customers, he became more strict with his payment terms and imposed late payment fees. He put up a sign in his truck stating his payment terms.

Recession strikes

The business became more challenging when the recession hit in 2008. The government’s “Cash for Clunkers” program in 2009 made things even worse, Flynn notes. The influx of new vehicles hurt the market for auto repair work, which in turn reduced technicians’ interest in buying tools. “That had a big impact on my business,” he says.

His relationship with his flag wasn’t helping things. He felt the training that his flag provided him was helpful, but his relationship with the company was problematic.

Flynn’s willingness to honor warranties was key to his early success, but it created some tensions with his flag. In addition, he didn’t feel the company was willing to listen to his ideas.

One incident in particular occurred when he introduced his flag to a shoe manufacturer whose products he was selling.

After he put the flag in touch with the shoe company, the two companies entered into an exclusive selling agreement. Flynn’s reward for bringing the parties together? A higher price for shoes. Because of the exclusive selling agreement, Flynn could no longer buy the shoes direct from the manufacturer and the flag charged 50 percent more.

Flynn eventually had enough. He asked his customers if they would continue to buy from him if he became an independent distributor. Most said they would. He thinks his customers recognized that he takes a strong interest in their well-being.

“They (the flag) only wanted to be a supplier. I want a partner,” he says.

In 2009, Flynn left the flag and became an independent, sourcing tools from warehouse distributors. “Once I went independent, a lot of things started to change,” he says.

He repainted his truck to promote the tool brands.

He leased a management software system from Allsoft Technologies, which he found easy to learn and very helpful for managing the business. He uploads his supplier catalogs to his software. He uses Quicken Home and Business for managing his books.

The software helps him monitor his vendor charges daily to make sure there are no mistakes. “I reconcile everything,” he says.

He makes a habit of paying his purchases in full every month. “I do what I teach my customers to do,” he says.

The software also supports credit and debit card processing and allows customers to make automatic payments. Flynn has placed about 80 percent of his customers on automatic payment. He thinks the processing costs are well worth the convenience of not having to collect individual payments.

He also keeps paper receipts for all sales. He wraps his receipts daily with a rubber band; the bands get put in a sealed baggie at the end of the week. Every week is a new baggie. This way, it’s easy to find a receipt if he needs it. “If I don’t look out for my own business, nobody else is going to,” he says.

Distributor as financial advisor

Flynn recognized early on that many customers have problems managing their finances. He isn’t shy about asking them about their finances and offering them advice in how to manage their money.

He advises customers on how to improve their credit and how to get out of and stay out of debt. He claims he has helped many customers avoid personal bankruptcy.

One customer actually cried when Flynn showed him what the full cost would be for a toolbox priced at $5,400. With taxes and finance charges, the total cost was $8,000. “I try really hard to make people see the bigger picture,” he says. “You can’t just look at the weekly payment. You have to look at the bigger picture.”

One tech recently complained to him about a dispute with his employer. Flynn advised him that if he quit or got let go, there were several techs waiting to replace him. “I have to be this way to teach this guy, or he’ll lose his job and not be able to pay his bill,” he says. The last thing I want to do is go chasing after the money.”

Turning lemons into lemonade

After becoming an independent, Flynn was able to turn an earlier moral defeat into a victory. He was naturally discouraged when he got hit with higher prices after his flag entered an exclusive agreement with his shoe supplier. But as a result of this unfortunate incident, better things were in store for him when he became an independent distributor.

In search of an alternative shoe supplier, Flynn came across 5.11 Tactical, a company that specializes in products for public safety officers. Flynn was interested in selling the company’s shoes, but he quickly recognized an opportunity to sell its other products, including tactical products.

When he began showing the 5.11 Tactical catalog to customers, no fewer than 100 of them asked him when he would sell firearms to complement the tactical products. He has since developed a firearms business that complements the tool business, even though he doesn’t carry firearms on the truck. Customers interested in buying guns come to his house to buy them.

“All of this started because I had to find a new shoe,” he says. “Today, 5.11 is one of my favorite partners.”

The biggest disadvantage to being independent is not having the financing programs that flags have, Flynn notes. As a result, he is less aggressive selling toolboxes or capital equipment. However, if he notices that a parts washer, a lift or a tire changer isn’t working, he’ll advise the owner or the manager. He is also a BendPak distributor and has access to BendPak financing for shop owners.

Flynn typically asks for 20 percent down for a high-ticket purchase with a 12-month payback.

A strategic shift

In late 2012, Flynn made a strategic decision to cull his worst paying and least profitable customers. He began by cutting his 12 least profitable shops. After experiencing minimal loss in sales, he cut another group of customers six months later. He reduced his customer count by two-fifths. The result was lower sales but better profits.

After reducing his customer count by two-fifths a year ago, Flynn freed up two days of his week. He used some of his extra time finding new stops, and he has since rebuilt his customer base and has increased his delivery schedule to four days a week.

Removing his worst customers has been one of the best things he has done, but it has not eliminated collection issues entirely. Flynn views collections as the biggest downside of mobile tool sales. He thinks a tracking service that identifies problem payers would be a great benefit to the industry. He is aware there is such a service, but it doesn’t cover his geographic market well.

“If you take that risk out of this business, this is a great business,” he says.

The search for new products

Flynn searches the Internet daily for new items to sell. “My niche is finding things the other guys can’t or aren’t interested in finding. I’m always looking for the next cool thing.”

The best-selling item of late has been the Jacko Li-ion-powered mini starter kit. “That is the hottest product I have ever sold.”

The best selling tool category has been flashlights. One flashlight that he’s had great success with is a waterproof, Powertac 960 lumen light from KD Lighting that can plug into a cell phone charger. He has a lot of fun showing customers how this flashlight, with a lifetime warranty, will actually charge their cell phones. “Any USB it will charge. Excitement is contagious. This is something they can get excited about. For the money, I have yet to see a better value in a flashlight.”

He has also had success with Genius Tools sockets.

Flynn has fun on the truck asking three customers to stand on the drawer of his Extreme Tools EX7217RC toolbox. “I don’t have to sell this toolbox; it sells itself.”

Paracords (typically found in parachutes but also used for pulling cars) hang from the ceiling in the truck that can be worn as jewelry. “You have to come on the truck because you never know what you might find,” he says. “I have new stuff all the time.”

A lot of items, such as a tactical vest priced well above $600, come from customer requests.

He has recently begun selling Advocare health and wellness products, which provide a positive image to his truck. So far, he is pleased with the sales.

Rewards for customers

Flynn constantly seeks new ways to improve his customer service.

On birthdays, he presents them a Performance Tools reversible screwdriver. He tells them the only condition for providing them the gift is that they tell him which of his competitors also remembered their birthday. “Nobody acknowledges birthdays,” he says.

In some cases, for good customers, he replaces tools that he did not sell. “That’s just good customer service,” he says. In instances when a customer gives him a broken tool he didn’t sell, Flynn has been known to take the tool to another shop and ask a customer to give it to the distributor that sold it and request that they honor the warranty.

He offers treats as rewards for purchases. On Fridays, his wife, Mary, visits the shops that he missed during the week. When customers pay, she offers a baked good as a reward.

A second laptop on top of the toolbox allows customers to search the Internet while he’s busy writing up orders on his main business laptop. “My customers love it,” he says.

He notes that his best sales tool is his Medco flyer, “The Tool Cart.” His main warehouse distributors are Medco and Neu Tool. While Medco has more warehouses and products, Neu Tool is hungrier and goes that extra mile to make him successful. Both are more than just suppliers; they are business partners, he says.

Flynn thinks he has another 10 years before he will consider cutting back on his busy schedule. In the meantime, he keeps on the lookout for new products.

“Everything I do has to dovetail with everything else I do,” he says. “More than anything else, I try to listen to what my customers tell me.”

Bob Flynn’s Top 5 Tools

  1. Milwaukee Tools Cordless Impact
  2. KD Lighting Powertac Flashlight
  3. Antigravity Batteries Micro Start Jump Box
  4. Genius Tools Sockets - TF332M  
  5. 5.11 Company Boot